Foreign ministers from Cambodia and Thailand held fresh talks yesterday to resolve a nearly two-week military standoff close to an ancient temple that has raised tensions in the region.
Thousands of soldiers have been deployed since July 15 to a small patch of land around the 11th century Preah Vihear temple, which sits on a mountaintop overlooking the Cambodian jungle.
The ruins of the Khmer temple belong to Cambodia, but the most practical entrance begins at the foot of a mountain in Thailand, and both sides claim some of the surrounding territory.
Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and his newly appointed Thai counterpart, Tej Bunnag, met for nearly two hours in the morning with a handful of top military officials, officials said.
Neither country expected a resolution to the conflict to come yesterday, but they hoped experts would be able to hammer out details on proposals for the border before the ministers were to meet again later in the day, officials said.
“The foreign ministers will raise only their main policies, but issues regarding the border and troops need to be discussed in more detail and that will require work by different committees,” Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said.
“Meeting face to face is better than not meeting each other,” he added.
Thai foreign ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat told reporters that Bangkok was committed to resolving the crisis through negotiations.
“We will talk about all the problems. We will try to find solutions as best we can,” Tharit said as the talks got under way.
“This is a complicated issue but with the long relationship between the two neighboring countries, the two can find a solution to solve this problem,” Tharit said.
The negotiations took place at an upmarket hotel in Siem Reap, whose name translates as “Thailand defeated” — a legacy of ancient conflicts between the neighbors.
The town is now a hub of Thai investment in Cambodia, with Thailand’s well-developed tourism industry tapping into the international appeal of the nearby Angkor Wat ruins.
Nationalist tensions last erupted in 2003 in a controversy over Angkor Wat, after a Thai actress implied the ruins belonged to Thailand. The remarks sparked a night of riots in which Bangkok’s embassy and several Thai-owned businesses were burned and looted in Phnom Penh.
The latest dispute has again fueled nationalist passions.
Concerns over Preah Vihear helped boost Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s standing in general elections on Sunday, in which his party claimed victory.
But the stakes are considerably higher for Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, whose government was the target of royalist protests and mounting legal challenges that threatened to bring down his administration.
Protesters have accused Samak of giving away Thai territory after his government initially agreed to support Cambodia’s bid to win UN World Heritage status for Preah Vihear. A court ruled that the deal with Cambodia was unconstitutional, forcing the resignation of then-foreign minister Noppadon Pattama earlier this month.
Tej, a career diplomat, was confirmed as the new minister over the weekend.
The International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that the Preah Vihear temple belonged to Cambodia, but surrounding land has remained in dispute.